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North Korea's future

Reports of the Dear Leader’s demise point to a more serious problem. There's no clear successor to K

Reports of the death of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il may be exaggerated. His failure to attend the sixtieth anniversary celebrations of the founding of the North Korean state recently was excitedly carried by news agencies and television stations around the world, proof, possibly that South Korean intelligence could be right; that Kim Jong Il was dead.

Astonishingly CNN, and veteran anchor, Wolf Blitzer, gave airtime to a Japanese analyst who claimed Kim Il Jong had in fact been dead for years, and that his place has been taken by a double. Well, I have seen Kim Jong Il in the flesh on two occasions, admittedly at a distance, so it is possible in theory that the man I was looking on was a double, even down to his platform shoes. Possible, but unlikely.

In fact, without risking encouraging the grim reaper, or entirely disputing reports from South Korean intelligence, I can recall at least two, maybe three, occasions in recent years when the Dear Leader reportedly had died.

His failure to appear on the Dais in Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang some years ago was taken as proof of his demise. And then there was the train explosion on the border with China four or five years back. But Kim Jong Il had not been assassinated; a freight train containing chemicals had exploded. Those living near the track weren’t so fortunate; many hundreds perished or were badly wounded, but the Dear Leader’s train had passed through unscathed many hours before.

What we do know however is that Kim Il Jong has not appeared in public since mid August.

I was in North Korea with Labour MEP Glyn Ford, filming reports for Al Jazeera TV, and I have copies of the Pyongyang Times from mid July. Kim – or his double – looks hale and hearty, ‘giving field guidance to various sectors in Hwaphyong County’.

Hardly proof of course that all is well. It is reported for instance that Kim Jong Il suffers from diabetes and his August absence coincided with specialist Chinese doctors being flown in to attend him. In other words Kim Jong Il could be ill.

South Korean intelligence has also reported this summer that Kim Yong Nam, the official, although largely ceremonial leader, was seriously ill. But there he was on the Dais in Kim Il Sung Square during the 60th anniversary celebrations standing in for Kim.

And Glyn Ford, veteran Korea watcher and active participant in attempts to get the North out of its isolation, points out that key decisions are still being taken at the highest level. The North has announced its intention to restart its nuclear programme, in protest at the United States refusal to remove it from its list of State sponsors of terror.

The North has also indicated its willingness to improve relations with Japan, and would probably facilitate the return of two Japanese Red Army Faction hijackers, who have been residing in Pyongyang since the 1970s.

Whether the reports of the Dear Leader’s demise, imminent of existent, are proved true or are propaganda aimed at destabilizing the regime, we do not know.

However reports of the Dear Leader’s demise point to a potentially more serious problem to come. There remains no clear successor to Kim Jong Il, and the North’s Communist political and military leadership is increasingly aged. Which could point, some optimists might say, for a chance of rapid change at the top that might in turn usher in political and economic reform. Pessimists might argue in turn that if reports of the Dear Leader have proved untimely, reports of the demise of the Communist North over the years have certainly been premature.

Turmoil and instability, revolution’s friend, gave the world the DPRK sixty years ago. Now that country is a nuclear state, turmoil and instability is what the North’s neighbours fear the most.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times